Owing to Nigeria’s long history of human rights violations and ineffective justice administration, the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), in January, invited the presidential candidates for a national dialogue.
The NBA President, Yakubu Maikyau, said the essence of the dialogue, which centred on justice administration among others, was to elicit from the presidential candidates their plans in tackling the myriads of challenges plaguing the system, with a view to holding whoever becomes the president accountable to those promises.
Some of the 18 presidential candidates standing for election this Saturday attended and spoke at the event.
But none of the four leading presidential standard-bearers – Atiku Abubakar of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Peter Obi of the Labour Party (LP), Bola Tinubu of the All Progressives Congress (APC) and Rabi’u Kwankwaso of the New Nigeria Peoples Party (NNPP) – attended the event.
Mr Tinubu delegated Hassan Liman, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) and member of the APC presidential campaign council, to the dialogue.
The issues chosen by the NBA for deliberation are the pivot on which rule of law and other ethos of democracy rest. Without an efficient justice administration system, rule of law and human rights falter and democracy begins to crumble.
The scant attention given to the issues by the frontline presidential candidates may not be a measure of the importance they attach to the issues, but their manifestos which serve as the fulcrum of their campaigns, offer some hope.
A review of their manifestos gives little assurance that deterioration of the rule of law and human rights on the watch of outgoing President Muhammadu Buhari administration would be better addressed when they take over.
On Mr Buhari’s watch, breach of these democratic ethos is a constant feature that has endured to its last days. Mr Buhari just last week made a broadcast that trampled on an order of the Supreme Court suspending the enforcement of the deadline set to end the use of some old currency notes.
The action, a direct attack on rule of law, has inspired a litany of human rights violations for many Nigerians that have lost their lives, businesses, property, and peaceful living due to the harsh impact of the new policy.
It was the latest in the series of plethora of human rights abuses and flagrant disregard for court orders that President Buhari’s regime has supervised in the last seven and a half years.
The regime, for years, disregarded a series of court orders for the release of a former National Security Adviser (NSA), Sambo Dasuki, who was arrested by the State Security Service (SSS), in 2015. The Nigerian government only bowed to pressure to release Mr Dasuki in December 2019.
In another instance, the Federal High Court declared the detention of the leader of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN), Ibrahim Elzakzaky, and his wife, Zeinat, illegal. In 2015, the Nigerian Army destroyed the couple’s home in Zaria, killing many of their followers, after they had an altercation with then Chief of Army Staff, Tukur Buratai.
But the government did not comply with the order until 2021 when the Kaduna State High Court dismissed the charges brought against Mr Elzakzaky.
His prolonged detention in disregard of the court orders fuelled protests by Shiites, Mr Elzakzaky’s followers, across Nigeria.
Similarly, the government arrested and incarcerated pro-democracy activist, Omoyele Sowore, in disregard for court orders.
In a bid to rearrest Mr Sowore after he was granted bail in December 2019, armed SSS agents violated the sanctity of the Federal High Court in Abuja, while the judge, Ijeoma Ojukwu, was sitting. The situation caused pandemonium.
In what many across Nigeria and the globe have described as the worst human rights violation on Mr Buhari’s watch, armed military personnel stormed a protest ground in Lagos on 20 October, 2020, firing at unarmed protesters.
Nigerian youth had gathered at Lekki tollgate in Lagos as part of a nationwide protest against police brutality. But soldiers moved in to clear the protesters and in the process killed several people, an independent panel of inquiry set by the Lagos State government found, despite the federal government’s denial of any murder at the scene.
What presidential candidates pledge
Poignantly, manifestos of the four leading presidential candidates are not promising on how they would safeguard rule of law and fundamental human rights of citizens.
For instance, the manifesto of the presidential candidate of the APC, Mr Tinubu, is not categorical on the issue, the same manner he has only skirted the issue during his campaign stops.
In the manifesto, Mr Tinubu only pledged, “We will ensure that our nation’s legal framework is appropriate for the type of society we seek to build – a society that is fair and which provides enforceable rights to all Nigerians.”
The document promises that, “A Tinubu government will operate on the premise that the rule of law is paramount,” without giving insights into what he would do differently.
Worse still, Atiku Abubakar of the Peoples Democratic Party only made a passing mention of promoting “the rule of law” in his manifesto.
In the same vein, the Labour Party presidential candidate, Mr Obi, promises to “restructure the polity through effective legal and institutional reforms to entrench the rule of law.” There was no mention of protection of human rights in his manifesto.
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Rabiu Kwankwaso of the NNPP talks about “…upholding the principle that all are equal before the law, and integrating the rule of law with the rule of virtue.” Mr Kwankwaso like his co-contestants did not explicitly commit to promoting the rule of law and safeguarding human rights of every Nigerian.
With their manifestoes manifestly deficient in areas of rule of law and protection of human rights, members of civil society organisations, citizens and journalists must continuously demand accountability from whoever becomes president on 29 May.
Nigeria’s uninspiring human rights records
Over the years, Nigeria has not fared well in all human rights indicators amid little hope offered by those seeking to take over the reins of power when President Buhari leaves office on 29 May.
A New Zealand-based organisation, Human Rights Measurement Initiative (HRMI), gauging the human rights performance of countries, rated Nigeria “very poor” in its 2022 report.
The report said, “Compared with other countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Nigeria is performing worse than average.”
Global human rights body, Amnesty International, rates Nigeria low on its human rights evaluation. In September 2021, it condemned the “Nigerian security forces’ attempts to clamp down on Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) militants have led to arbitrary arrests, detentions, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions in the Southeast and Niger Delta area of Nigeria.”
Nigeria has had three decades of arbitrary military rule that saw the violent violation of citizens’ rights with the jailing and killing of pro-democracy activists as well as flagrant disobedience to court judgements.
Nigerians had hoped that with the return of democratic rule in 1999, there was going to be a people-oriented government.
To many Nigerians’ chagrin, the then President Olusegun Obasanjo administration ordered military operations that massacred civilians in Zaki-Biam community in Benue State as well as Odi in Bayelsa State. He paid scant regard to court decisions. Mr Obasanjo’s successors – the late Umaru Yar’Adua, Goodluck Jonathan and Muhammadu Buhari followed the ignoble path.
Whoever wins Nigeria’s presidency on Saturday will contend with growing agitation amongst Nigerians yearning for good governance.
Owing to successive governments’ failure to meet many of the citizens’ aspirations for a better life, there are high chances that Nigerians, especially the youth, may soon find new reasons to take to the streets to demand accountability and better deals as the economic realities bite harder.
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