Late in May, at a traditional wedding ceremony in Gwange Ward of Maiduguri in Borno State, the new couple and their invited guests were enraptured by the event of the day. Their joy was rudely interrupted by gunshots from soldiers of the Joint Task Force (JTF), the inter-agency military outfit in charge of security in the troubled city. By the time the chaos was over, three men were dead, two more injured, and two cars burnt.
Residents say the attack was unprovoked and that the persons killed were innocent. The JTF claimed they were fishing out members of the dreaded Boko Haram sect.
This is one case out of many similar ones. Members of the public, especially in the crisis-torn Northern states, regularly complain of unfair and inhuman treatment from security personnel, who in turn claim they are fighting the war against terror. Trigger-happy cops have continued to extrajudicially kill citizens while illegal arrests and harrasment by law enforcement agencies remained the order of the day.
Most of these cases remain unreported. But even when they are reported, citizens never get redress.
The problem, largely, is that the agency charged with tackling these sort of matters in the country, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), is comatose. For more than half a year, the Governing Council of the Commission has remained in limbo; the members who were appointed in December, 2011, have not been empowered, as required by the law, to function hence they are unable to take decisions concerning the numerous cases of human rights abuses that are currently before the commission.
The comatose Commission
For more than six months, Nigeria has, technically, not attended to one single case of human rights infringement. The war for the ‘promotion and respect for human rights and fundamental freedom’, the United Nations Charter to which Nigeria subscribed, is comatose.
The NHRC Act states clearly that Council members can only function after taking the oath of office.
“Every Member of the Council shall before starting his duties make and subscribe to an oath that he shall faithfully and impartially and to the best of his ability discharge the duties devolving upon him,” says Section 2 (4) of the NHRC 2010 Act.
In six months, neither the Presidency nor the office of the Secretary to the Federal Government (SGF) has found the time to organise an inauguration ceremony where the oath of office is traditionally administered.
The members of the Governing Council of the NHRC, the body charged with ‘discharging all functions’ relating to the protection of the fundamental freedom of Nigerian citizens, says that the Presidency and the SGF must take the blame.
The Council members say that they are paralyzed and cannot carry out their official duties because relevant authorities have refused to administer the required oath of office on the members who were appointed since December, 2011.
It is not clear why government is reluctant to empower a board it consistuted. But a presidency source suggested that the government was already regretting the appointment of Chidi Odinkalu, a law teacher and human rights activist, as chairman of the commission.
The administration, sources say, peceived Mr. Odinkalu as a “fiercely independent-minded” activist who might end up embarrassing the government.
The administration recently had a brush with Mr. Odinkalu after he was accused of making “damaging remarks” against the Nigeria Police.
Mr Odinkalu, who says his position as the head of the council “took effect from 8 December, 2011”, argues that while the NHRC as an agency can still carry out basic functions without the Council, core decisions on the actual protection of persons must be carried out by the board.
“The protection work of Council, including decision making on cases, requires a quorum of at least six members. Promotional work is different,” Mr. Odinkalu said.
For the Council members, this state of limbo is troubling and frustrating.
“The Council is hanging. The real assignment which we have been appointed for has to do with the council meeting to discuss issues on human rights abuses so we are essentially not doing our work,” David Ezeigwe, another member of the Council told PREMIUM TIMES.
Mr. Ezeigwe, a legal practitioner, said the “inauguration should be initiated by the presidency”.
Similarly, Mr. Odinkalu, the head of the Council insists that the “Office of the SGF and the Executive Secretary of the Commission are the persons who assert powers to undertake inauguration of the Commission’s Council”.
Who’s to blame
While some members of the Council insist that a formal inauguration ceremony is the only avenue through which they can take the oath of office, others argue that the ‘inauguration ceremony’ is unconstitutional.
“Most members, not me, say that since other commissions like us have their boards inaugurated, we too should be inaugurated,” Mr. Ezeigwe said.
With grumblings from the public that members of the Council have been cowered by the Federal Government into silence about their inert state, Mr. Odinkalu said this in not the case. Rather he urged that the blame must be directed at the authorities whom he says do not have the interests of the country at heart.
“Members were appointed with effect from 8 December 2011. If Inauguration is a requirement for members proceeding to their functions and those who are responsible for it have not found the time to do it now, eight months later, doesn’t that say more about them or about what they think of the situation in the country,” Mr. Odinkalu queried.
Although, he wouldn’t confirm it, Mr. Odinkalu, we are told, has proceeded to a notary public to take the oath of office, since the NHRC act did not specify that that there must be an inauguration ceremony before oaths could be taken.
Other members of the Board are reluctant to follow the chairman’s example.
In response, Ben Anigwe, the Executive Secretary of the NHRC, one of whom the Chairman of the Council insists ought to answer questions on the current situation of the Council, says the government is working towards the inauguration.
“The office of the SGF is working to carry out the inauguration within the next two weeks. When they are prepared, they will call,” Mr. Anigwe said.
Until that is done, the body that should safeguard the human rights of citizens will remain comatose while gross abuses continue by the minutes.