When President Goodluck Jonathan assumed office in May 2011, he identified persistent violence and crime as a major problem confronting the country. He promised to “confront this threat against our collective peace and security, and bring the perpetrators to justice.”
But recent events have shown that the president has failed woefully to keep his promise. The terrifying abduction of more than 300 schoolgirls by the notorious extremist group Boko Haram is yet further evidence of the increasing level of violence and crime, as well as unnecessary loss of lives and destruction of property.
It has taken weeks of demonstrations by civil society, and now international outrage, for the government to even admit that the girls, who are feared to have been sold into slavery, are missing. Yet in a televised speech, the president pointedly failed to mention the objectives of finding the missing schoolgirls, ending the years of terror, and ensuring justice for victims.
The simple fact of the matter is that the government has conceded the initiative to the Islamist extremist group; it seems completely bereft of ideas of what to do.
Amnesty International’s research indicates that at least 2,000 people have been killed in politically-motivated, communal and sectarian violence in Nigeria in 2014 alone.
Yet the Nigerian authorities have failed to investigate the killings, bring suspected perpetrators to justice, or indeed prevent further attacks. To date, few arrests have been made and few people held accountable for the deaths.
At the same time, the government continues to illegally hold hundreds of people suspected of participating in violence perpetrated by the Boko Haram and is denying them access to lawyers. Most of those imprisoned around the country are held without criminal charges, and some of them have been summarily executed by security forces before facing trial.
In failing to put in place credible measures to prevent abduction and killings, and fully investigate and punish perpetrators, the Nigerian authorities have neither respected, nor met their obligations to exercise due diligence to protect human rights.
Clearly, mere promises are not enough. The government must match its words with serious and concrete action.
In fact, the inadequacy of the government’s approach to security is evident at several stages: shortcomings in the prevention of violence, lack of adequate victim support and access to remedies, and a serious dearth of resources and political will to investigate incidents of violence.
Equally disturbingly, corruption seems to be present and potentially widespread in law enforcement and security services, eroding the citizenry’s trust in the rule of law, and contributing to a sense of lawlessness that encourages violence and abuse.
To be sure, violence and crime are longstanding problems in Nigeria; they predate this administration. However, it is the primary duty of any government to guarantee the security of the population, and the absence of concrete measures by this government has contributed to the continuation of violence.
The government’s persistent failure on internal security is also a serious breach of the government’s human rights obligations and commitments, including under the Nigerian Constitution and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, to which Nigeria is a state party. Nigeria has made the African Charter part of its domestic laws, which, in theory, should facilitate the charter’s enforcement.
Both the Nigerian Constitution and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights guarantee the right to life, physical integrity, and liberty, as well as rights related to due process. As a corollary, the government is required to ensure the effective functioning and operation of governmental apparatus and, in general, all the structures through which public power is exercised, so that it is capable of ensuring the free and full enjoyment of all human rights for all.
These Charter-based obligations must be performed in good faith, in keeping with Articles 26, 27 and 31 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties.
As noted, of particular importance to Nigeria’s current state of insecurity are the rights to security and life.
On the right to security of the person, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the body charged with the responsibility to oversee states parties’ compliance with the African Charter has interpreted this right to include “the right to national and individual security.”
According to the Commission, “national security examines how the State protects the physical integrity of its citizens from external threats, such as invasion, terrorism, and violence. Individual security on the other hand can be looked at in two angles – public and private security. By public security, the law examines how the State protects the physical integrity of its citizens from abuse by official authorities, and by private security, the law examines how the State protects the physical integrity of its citizens from abuse by other citizens (third parties or non-state actors).”
Regarding the right to life, this right is central both to the Constitution and the African Charter. It is a right that cannot be suspended even in case of war, public danger or other threats to the independence or security of the States Parties. As with other human rights, it is not sufficient for the government to abstain from infringing this right directly: the government must also adopt specific measures to actively protect and fulfil the right to life for everyone, regardless of their specific vulnerability or situation. A key part of the government obligation is to ensure that no one is deprived of his or her life arbitrarily.
Most worryingly, things may get worse before they get better.
Time is running out and the government needs to do something fast to ensure the safe return of the schoolgirls. As Salil Shetty, Amnesty International’s Secretary-General, has aptly stated,“It is imperative that Nigeria acts swiftly and firmly to secure their safe return – with international support if needed – but the process must also demonstrate a commitment to human dignity, human rights, transparency and accountability.”
Looking forward, one way the government can also comply with its positive obligations in the area of citizens’ security and safety would be for it to monitor, evaluate, and improve the effectiveness of its law enforcement and security agencies. This will be an important step for the President to start discharging his election promises.
Further, the government must truly make security and safety of those who live in Nigeria a public policy priority by tackling the root cause of violence and crime, which is extreme poverty and lack of opportunities, and creating greater freedom for people to seek personal development and prosperity.
Victims of violence and crimes must have effective access to legal and health services, and should have access to an effective remedy. The government should also ensure that law enforcement and security agencies have the personnel and infrastructure to provide quality services without discrimination or distinction.
In implementing these steps, the government must also uphold the rule of law and respect for human rights in its law enforcement response to violence and crime in the country. Preventing and combating violence and crime must not put security before human rights, which can lead to erosion of basic human rights and fundamental freedoms of the citizens.
Absent a serious political investment in public security with respect for all human rights, the government cannot secure effective protection of the right to life, liberty and security of the person. Indeed, true security requires full protection of all human rights for all.
It is time for the government to wake up and smell the coffee. If Nigeria is to foster peace, it must turn towards justice and respect for human rights.
Olaniyan is Legal Adviser at Amnesty International in London and the author of ‘Corruption and Human Rights Law in Africa’