With facts showing that Nigeria has recorded over one million cases of human rights violations from 2017 till date, in this interview, the executive secretary of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), Mr. Tony Ojukwu, discussed the way out for Nigeria. BIDON MIBZAR reports
What is the mandate of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC)?
The mandate of the NHRC is to promote, protect and enforce the human rights of the citizens and that of other nationals resident in Nigeria. The commission came into being with the NHRC Establishment Act 1995 during the regime of the late head of state, Gen. Sani Abacha following huge outcry by citizens, particularly human rights’ activists and the international community over the atrocious regime’s notorious and grave human rights violations. To broaden the mandate of the commission and make it independent and autonomous, the NHRC Act was amended in 2010 which also confers on the commission with enforcement powers. The commission can now summon witnesses, alleged violators and complainants whom they have powers to arrest with police warrant should they fail to honour the commission’s invitations or summons.
How does the Act affect the operations of the commission?
The NHRC Establishment Act 1995 as amended in 2010 is one of the best legislations when it comes to human rights institutions all over the world. It broadly captures all aspects of human rights. The enforcement powers and autonomy granted to the commission in 2010 enables her to function effectively. The Act touches on relevant human rights laws at the national, regional and international levels. Similarly, it re-echoes the rights provided in Chapter 4 and Chapter 2 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria as amended. Whereas the Civil and Political Rights outlined in Chapter 4 of the constitution are said to be justiciable, similar meaning is yet to be accorded to the rights contained in Chapter 2 of the same constitution. Interestingly, the NHRC Act has come to give more life and powers of enforcement to the Economic, Social and Cultural Rights enshrined in Chapter 2 of the Constitution. As far as the commission is concerned, human rights are equal, and mutually reinforcing, meaning that none of them can meaningfully function well in isolation. For instance, the right to life is tied to right to food, clean and conducive environment, good health of the body and mind and healthy living.
Can we say that the legislation is flawed?
The NHRC Act as I said earlier is among the best globally. It covers all aspects of human rights and it enjoys enormous powers, autonomy and independence to function seamlessly and this is why we are functioning very effectively without distractions. The only challenge we have is paucity of funds to carry out investigations, researches etc. which are needed to address the plethora of human rights challenges springing up all over the country. Remember some of these human rights issues are not envisaged or budgeted for, yet as a commission we must rise up to the challenges and ensure that they are tackled head on. For example, nobody foresaw Boko Haram, herders/farmers/ clashes which have led to huge numbers of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). So in essence, the commission needs more funds to adequately cover its broad mandate.
So in a nutshell, there are no flaws in the NHRC Act. What is needed is just to inject more funds to enable the commission cover its broad mandate more effectively. To augment the funds of the commission, we are making efforts to activate the Human Rights Funds which is already provided for in the Act. The commission’s budgets over the years have been fluctuating but in the 2019 budget the President ensured that additional N1billion was added to the NHRC budget, now making it N2.5billion. This is good news to the commission but it is still not enough. As you are aware, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the NHRC budget was reduced again by N250 million in the 2020 budget.
With the unfolding drama in Edo State do you foresee a possible human right abuse and is the NHRC doing anything to ensure credible election in the state and that every vote counts come September 19?
The upcoming governorship election in Edo State is another opportunity for us to test our human rights attitude towards citizens’ rights to vote and to be voted for. Of course, there are concerns that the election coming up in Edo State in September will be highly contentious given the series of political alignments and realignments as seen at the upper echelon of the two major contending political parties.
However, we are not asleep, as we are already making arrangements to monitor the election as we normally do. The attitude and behaviour of security agencies and their personnel is of paramount interest to the commission as we expect them to play by the rules and remain apolitical, neutral and civil before, during and after the election. They are equally not expected to tamper or obstruct the electoral processes, or even harass the electorates. We are going to send our staff to monitor and document all these before we come up with an official report on the election.
Records had it that Nigeria has recorded over one million cases of human rights violations from 2017 till date. How can this be permanently addressed?
Yes, NHRC has been recording the threshold of one million complaints since 2017 which further demonstrate that human rights awareness is increasing in Nigeria. In as much as cases of human rights violations are on the increase, more sensitisation on human rights by the commission is equally accounting for the upsurge in complaints of human rights violations.
To address this, we unbundled the investigations department to have more thematic departments. Initially it was only the Protection and Investigations Department doing the whole investigation job. But when I came on board, we thought it wise to have Civil and Political Rights Department, Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Department and Women, Children and Vulnerable Groups Department. This strategy is working fine because all aspects of human rights are given adequate attention now.
However, human rights violation is not something you just put a stop to. It is like other crimes, the Police cannot totally stop criminals from committing crimes but you can reduce these by increased sensitisation, accountability and diligent resolution of cases, be they human rights or otherwise.
You were once quoted to have attributed the numerous cases of human rights abuse such as sexual abuse, child molestation, gender-based violence, torture, extra-judicial killings and other numerous ranges of violence to the spate of conflicts, which include the Boko Haram and herders/farmers conflicts in some parts of the country. Do you think there’s a possible shift?
It is true that Boko Haram, farmers/herders clashes etc have sacked many communities and exposed the survivors to grave human rights violations like SGBV, hunger, deprivation, closure of schools, no access to medical care etc. But in recent times, COVID-19 pandemic has added to the woes and sorrows of some citizens, especially the less privileged ones who run between pillar and post to eke out a living amidst the legion of human rights challenges. The commission recently published its report on enforcement of COVID-19 lockdown showing how initially the law enforcement agents went on rampage to violate rights in the guise of enforcing lockdown regulations. Due to the monitoring report of the commission, the authorities and the law enforcement agencies retraced steps to enforce the lockdown with more respect for human rights.
Considering the fact that government and its agencies are in the forefront of human rights abuse, how can NHRC protect and promote the rights of Nigerians without its actions conflicting with government’s position or interest?
The independence and autonomy granted to the commission enable it function without interference from the executive arm of government or any other body or person for that matter. Similarly, the executive arm of government cannot remove members without majority votes of the Senate. So, we protect the rights of citizens no matter whose interest is involved. It is our duty to ensure that we protect the human rights of every citizen of this country; we do that even against government officials, security agents who try to go beyond the boundary of the law and violate people’s rights.
How many cases of human rights violations has the NHRC taken to court and the outcome at the court?
Yes, cases desiring the attention of the courts are taken before competent courts to ensure that justice is served to all the parties. However, it appears that other bodies or individuals are the ones suing the commission in most cases. For instance, when we did the Electoral Accountability Survey and recommended that certain citizens or entities should be taken to court in line with the orders and decisions and judgements of judicial panels on electoral matters. At that point some individuals sued the commission claiming that we did not have powers to indict them whereas it is the electoral panel that actually indicted them for one electoral malfeasance or the other.
However, the commission has been embarking on some public interest litigation cases for victims of human rights violations like class action for prisoners who have over-stayed awaiting trial, those without case files etc.
How would an Indigent Nigerian whose right was abused access the services of the NHRC?
Access to the commission is as easy as a, b, c. The commission has offices in the 36 states of the federation. It also has social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and website through which complaints could be lodged. Tweeter: @NhrcNigeria, email: email@example.com, website: www.nhrc.gov.ng, facebook page: NHRC Nigeria Online.
The call centre is open to the public to report cases of human rights violations. The phone numbers are as follows: 08006472428 (Toll free), 092903746, 092908829. 09032192577, 07041678566, 07053529460 and 09088864332
Your commission chaired the Presidential Investigative Panel on SARS, what were your findings and what steps/recommendations has the government/commission taken or given respectively, to reform SARS?
Yes, the commission chaired the Presidential Investigation Panel on SARS and revealed several atrocities allegedly committed by policemen working under SARS. Some of these crimes included extra-judicial killings, torture and degrading treatments, confiscation of citizens’ property illegally, extortion etc.
The commission thereafter made far-reaching recommendations to the federal government which included the unbundling of the police to pave the way for state and local governments’ police structure. This is the practice in other climes where widespread abuse of human rights and rising criminalities festered notoriously. This has wrongly been interpreted as community policing. There should be amendment of the constitution to pave way for local police at the state and local government levels. The present community policing as being practiced has no structure, solid enough to cope with the level of insecurity in the country. There are so many ungoverned spaces, the forests which have been taken over by hoodlums who keep terrorising the populace. There is need for a more structured security system, far deeper than the community policing structure to cope with the level of insecurity in the country.
The commission also recommended more funding for the police. It is taken for granted that such additional funds will be well utilised to deal with teething problems at the police stations, divisional police and area command levels where the level of rot is shaking the very foundation of the NPF due to long period of neglect and lack of provision for office equipment and facilities.
What advice can you give victims of human rights abuses?
Victims should learn to open up to relevant authorities especially the NHRC, the police or social welfare officers. They should be free to report their experiences. This will aid in ensuring that the perpetrators of these abuses are punished and the victims on the other hand obtain justice.
We on our part have always carried out our duties with strict confidentiality. We do that in order to protect victims against societal stigmatisation and other negative vices that come with these abuses. If the perpetrators of these crimes know that they won’t be covered any more by the victims or even the society, they might choose to retract from committing the crime.