International Human Rights Day: Stakeholders Examine the Role of States in Upholding Rights in Nigeria
The Consulate-General of the United States of America in Lagos was the setting for a conference and panel discourse on the role of sub-national entities in Nigeria – in particular the 36 states of the federation – in the promotion and upholding of the fundamental human rights of the Nigerian people. Over the years, attention has been focused on the federal government and the activities of its agencies such as the Directorate of State Services (DSS), the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) and others, especially when they are involved in abuses.
Organized by CRALI (The Constitutional Rights Awareness and Liberty Initiative), an award-winning civil society organization dedicated to tracking the status (and reporting violations) of human rights in Nigeria, the event was graced with the distinguished presence of the Governor of Taraba State, HE, Architect Darius Ishyaku (who was accompanied by the state’s solicitor-general, Apwenyang Yamusa Shitta and other aides) and the US Consul-General in Lagos, Claire Pierangelo. The immediate past chairman of the Nigerian Bar Association’s Section on Business Law (NBA-SBL) Olumide Akpata, one of the prospective panelists, was slated to be joined on the panel by Dr. Babatunde Ajibade, SAN (Managing Partner at the law firm of of SPA Ajibade & Co.); the Attorney-General of Ekiti State, Olawale Fapohunda; the former Attorney-General of Ogun State, Dr. Olumide Ayeni (who is the Principal Partner and Head of Chamber at the law firm of Olumide Ayeni & Co) and the Solicitor-General of Taraba State, Mr. Shitta.
In his welcome remarks, the convener of CRALI, Adewale Austin Oyinlade, began by lamenting the recent ‘desecration of the temple of justice’ (as he put it) which occurred at the trial of the activist Omoyele Sowore in Abuja, describing it as troubling and symptomatic of an ongoing trend of disrespect for the rule in the country by the authorities. The recent travails of the online journalist Agba Jalingo, he said, is a clear example of how state governments (in this case, Cross River) are also culpable in the violation of human rights. On the other hand, he was full of praises for two sub-national entities, namely, Taraba and Ekiti States, which came first in the North and South of the country, respectively, in a recent survey of Nigeria’s 36 states conducted by CRALI. He highlighted other activities of CRALI, such as the distribution of 10,000 free copies of the Nigerian Constitution to people on the streets of Lagos, and the education of these people on the relevance of constitutional provisions to their lives as individuals, families and members of society.
Also welcoming participants to the conference, the US Consul-General in Lagos praised the work of CRALI, and in particular the doggedness and dedication of its Convener, Mr. Oyinlade, which she said the US Consulate-General has been proud to support over the years. She described the commemoration of the International Human Rights Day as an attempt to mobilize political will in the defence of human and people’s rights. The fight against violations of human rights, she said, was an ongoing one, but it is a necessary fight because victory was vital to the stability, peace and prosperity of societies and nations. Although the United States has always been seen as a beacon of democracy and civil freedoms, she said, the country’s experience (with the fight to abolish slavery, the civil rights struggle, the struggle for universal adult suffrage, etc) showed that no country is totally free from the scourge arising from man’s innate desire to dominate his fellowman. ‘We all need to do better,’ she said in conclusion.
Gov. Darius Ishyaku, who spoke next, expressed his pleasant surprise at the recognition of Taraba State in CRALI’s countrywide survey as a reference-point in the protection of human rights at the sub-national level in Nigeria. The work of protecting the people of Taraba, he said however, was far from done – as the state was still bedeviled by attacks from herdsmen on local farmers (on one hand) and raids by Cameroonian secessionists (on the other) – not to the government’s attempts to cater for the thousands of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) fleeing the Boko Haram in the country’s Northeast. He used to the opportunity to join his voice to the growing clamour for a state-controlled police force, saying the present centrally-controlled system was untenable in the face of the country’s security challenges. Though his government’s resort to community-based vigilantes and local farmers had helped in stemming the tide of violence, the governor said, a well-structured local police organization (under the overall supervision of national authorities) was the more viable and sustainable solution.
In his keynote speech at the occasion, former Ogun State Attorney-General Ayeni began by tracking the history and evolution of laws and edicts having to do with the protection of human rights – from the Code of Hummurabi in ancient Babylon; to the iconic Magna Carta in 13th century England; to the 1789 French Declaration of Human Rights; to the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, signed on December 10, 1948. These and similar legislations, he said, were attempts to push back against encroachments on human rights and democratic principles. He highlighted recent legal reforms – in particular the amendments to the Nigerian Constitution – as positive developments, but worried about the justiciability of certain provisions as far as the promotion of human rights were concerned.
Dr. Ayeni’s address was followed by the formal presentation of CRALI’s Know Your Rights app by the group’s Convener. The app, which explains the rights of people under the law in English, Pidgin, Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba, is complemented by contributions from about 50 lawyers from all over the country, who respond to questions from Nigerians, and can be activated even offline (for those unable to afford data).
The highly animated panel discussion centered on the theme of the conference, but also on the general theme of the state of human rights in Nigeria. Responding to a question on how to arrest the seeming slide towards impunity in the country, Dr. Ajibade and Mr. Fapohunda (the Ekiti AG) was emphatic in urging that the judiciary, being the proverbial last hope of the common man, be given its pride of place as bona fide arm of government.
Both the former SBL chair Akpata and the Taraba State solicitor-general echoed the call by Dr. Ajibade for greater unity at the Bar, saying lawyers must transcend personal and group interest in the face of a common and greater enemy than their internal contentions.
Akpata was particularly vehement in decrying the increasing rates of disobedience to court orders and the attempt (as he saw it) by the executive arm of government to intimidate other arms, and to muzzle opposition voices, calling on legal practitioners on both the bar and the bench to rise up and speak against the trend. On the controversial ‘hate speech’ bill – currently being considered by the National Assembly – the panelists were unanimous in their opposition, reiterating the need to pressure their representatives on the need to make sure the bill was not passed, as well as to dissuade Pres. Muhammadu Buhari from signing it into law.
A question-and-answer session followed soon after the discussion, in which two participants expressed their respective concerns about the justiciability of the provisions of Chapter 2 of the Constitution (as highlighted by the keynote speaker) as it pertains to the provision of humane and accessible health care – and what plans state governments were making in ensuring the provision of social housing, in the manner of what the former Lagos State Governor, Lateef Jakande did in the early 1980s.
The conference ended on that note, as stakeholders (especially those of the legal profession and the media) came away with a fresh resolve to help actualize the aims and objectives of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Human Rights Day.
See pictures below:
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