I am never quite sure if my thoughts are the magnets for the stories or if the stories that seek me out fuel my thoughts – but human rights has definitely been a recent theme. I am sure the predominance of human rights violation stories is not unconnected to Human Rights Day (December 10 2010) but the connection between power and the contempt with which man treats man is scary. A few days before, as if to commemorate human rights day, a police officer shot and killed Oluwafemi Olaiywola (Femi Best) in cold blood, in front of witnesses. That seemed to open the flood gates of human rights abuse stories and sadly, two out of the three stories I heard thereafter involved the police. And even though the police had no active role in one of the cases, if the police really were our friends then they would have a stronger role to play as protectors of our rights.
The first case is filled with comical irony worthy of a television show. According to the woman who was traumatized, her entire ordeal started because she dared to say ‘human rights’ within the walls of a police station. The woman was having a not-so-private conversation with a constable and when she said those words a policeman standing close by, told her off for being foolish enough to mention those words. ‘Don’t you know policemen do not like hearing ‘human rights’? he admonished and when she was fool hardy enough to respond, the issue escalated until she was chased out of the police station in a volley of abuse and scorn for her bad leg. She limped out as fast as she could leaving behind some items and taking along scars from the encounter.
The second story, involved the sexual, physical and psychological abuse of an employee by her foreign employer. Not once in her ordeal and her search for intervention did she mention a discussion with the police to come to her aid. As she sobbed out the facts of the case, the radio presenter kept telling her how God was enough for her and she should not worry. Feeling saddened by this stories, I wondered I am sure like many who listened in, what I would do under these circumstances. Would I take the passive route of crying and trust that the future wrath and punishment of God was enough or would I try to exercise my right as a person and as a citizen of Nigeria to see that those who abused me would be held accountable for their actions so that the risks of someone else suffering like me would be reduced? The thought of going through the judicial process is daunting even for me, a lawyer, especially when there is no certainty that after years of litigation, money and time, I would get justice. How do people who are not formally educated and who have little means even begin to navigate the system?
As I carried these heavy thoughts around in my head, I came upon a post on Facebook where someone shared a report by Daily Trust about a teenage girl in Kano who was forcibly held for weeks by policemen and repeatedly gang raped. This was the final straw for me, I had to find out what support is available for people who don’t just want to cry when their rights, dignity and person have been smashed, stomped on and spat on.
Legal Aid Council of Nigeria has been in existence since 1976 and this is where most Nigerians who cannot afford the services of a lawyer would go for legal services. This is where the serial rape victim went because thankfully there are Legal Aid offices in all the 36 states. However, after thirty-four years of existence, it is not clear how effective the legal aid council is. For instance what is their success rate in getting justice for their clients and how well do they act as a fierce deterrent for people who commit crimes or cheat others? It is great that there are legal aid offices all over the country, but what is their exact location in each state? This information is not on the website and even if it was, how accessible is the Internet for most Nigerians? Are they open twenty-four hours? Are there hotline numbers which a victim can call at no cost in order to seek advice or help? What are they doing about publicizing their work and highlighting successes?
The Nigerian Human Rights Commission is younger, more active and more visible – maybe because its mandate is unambiguous, unlike the legal aid council whose reach is wider and encompasses all wrongs including human rights. But all the questions asked of the Legal Aid Council can be asked of the NHRC and its shiny website provide few answers. The NHRC has sponsored awareness campaigns on gender violence, rights of children but has it prosecuted any cases successfully? Has it made an example of anyone? That is what is completely and utterly lacking in Nigeria today and that is why the police and anyone with power over another person can abuse that power with impunity; because no one has been made to pay.
On December 10, the NHRC called on all Nigerians to ‘be defenders’ of human rights. But what does it mean in Nigeria to have human rights when the police seek to prevent you from even verbalizing the words? What does it mean, when the rape victim in the case above is being pressured to ‘drop’ the case instead of being encouraged to punish those who violated her? These questions are even more poignant in the context of the 2011 elections and the call on all Nigerians to protect their votes. History books are peppered with mortals who have struggled to uphold the rights of others; Gandhi, Mandela and most recently Liu Xiabo who is challenging, China the boogey monster of international diplomacy and economic power for the right of Chinese people to elect their leaders. Will any Nigerian(s) keep company with such exalted people?
Yes, we have a lot to be thankful for with NHRC, Legal Aid Council and human rights crusaders who fight big cases involving the federal and state governments but who is fighting the small cases? The cases which have immediate impact and which make people feel they belong and are cared for by the communities in which they live?
We have to get creative. There is so much donor money going around can we divert some of this money to protecting the rights of humans? Can we get bold about supporting the work of the Legal Aid Council and the NHRC? Will the media donate ‘free’ airtime and pages to the cause just like Kiss FM in Abuja are highlighting issues? Can NYSC make it mandatory for lawyers to spend at least 6 months of their one-year service with the Legal Aid Council? And, can we stop leaving injustice up to God alone? We need to do our part on earth to protect the meek, the weak and the disadvantaged – God has given us all the tools we need – let’s use them instead of watching idly and waiting on the Lord.
If the words ‘human rights’ are banned by our police and we cannot protect our most basic and fundamental right to dignity as human beings then all the talk about protecting our votes, maternal mortality, free education is just that: talk.