President Muhammadu Buhari is failing to live up to his promises to ensure respect for human rights, obey the rule of law, and tackle corruption. Since assuming office in May 2015, Mr Buhari’s government has consistently flouted constitutionally and internationally guaranteed human rights. The growing crackdown on peaceful dissent, and the signing into law of the Companies and Allied Matters Act (CAMA) 2020 to squeeze civic space and impose restrictions on civil society suggest that this brutal repression will only escalate under his watch.
There was a further intensification of repression of human rights, including the right to peaceful assembly, in October when #EndSARS protesters participating in demonstrations to end police violence and corruption were reportedly harassed, intimidated, attacked and killed in several parts of Nigeria.
Since the national protests, authorities have arbitrarily arrested and detained many of the leaders of the protests, blocked their bank accounts, and otherwise restricted their human rights, including the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and movement.
It’s not the first time Mr Buhari’s government has repressed human rights. Authorities continue to flagrantly suppress human rights and disobey the rule of law. For example, journalist and leader of #RevolutionNow protest Omoyele Sowore is still being restricted to Abuja, despite the decision by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention declaring his detention and prosecution unlawful.
Amnesty International has in several reports documented cases of gross violations by the now disbanded Special Anti-Robbery Squad [SARS], including corruption, torture and other ill-treatment. Many of these cases are neither investigated nor prosecuted. Similarly, horrific cases of police violence and corruption are reported daily by victims before judicial panels set up by state governors to probe allegations of human rights violations by SARS.
For example, the Lagos State judicial panel of inquiry has heard a story of Ndukwe Ekekwe, who was allegedly pushed from a two-storey building by officers of SARS. Mr Ekekwe has had to use a wheelchair since then.
In another case, Chukwu Vincent told the panel how his cousin, Basil Ejiagwa, who is now dead, suffered loss of memory and eventually developed a brain tumour after he was tortured by SARS operatives in May 2014. A Federal High Court in Lagos in April 2019 reportedly ordered the authorities to pay Basil and his family N40 million as compensation but the order has so far been ignored.
The Nigerian Constitution of 1999 [as amended] and human rights treaties such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights to which Nigeria is a state party guarantee the rights to life, freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, and prohibit criminalization of dissenting voices.
Yet, authorities routinely crackdown on human rights, and security agents use unlawful force to stop peaceful protests. The failure to hold suspected perpetrators to account is an attack on human rights, and on the victims who have endured horrific abuses.
Judicial review is what protects people’s rights from the overbearing might of the state but the government’s disdain for the judiciary and the rule of law is underlined by its repeated disregard for court orders.
That is why, for instance, many in Nigeria have trouble taking seriously repeated promises by Mr Buhari to respect human rights, obey the rule of law, and tackle corruption. Mr Buhari’s government is continuing repression and ignoring the rights of the people. And it is getting away with it.
It shouldn’t be like this. The truth is that Mr Buhari has failed to fulfil his promises to the people.
Human rights provide people with invaluable protections against the power of the state. Human rights include the rights to speak freely, not to be arbitrarily detained, to peacefully protest, and so on. They are the bedrock of a healthy and corruption-free society.
As former South African president Nelson Mandela once stated: “to deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity”. Therefore, Mr Buhari has to publicly recommit to human rights, the rule of law, and the fight against corruption. He should make clear that his government won’t tolerate impunity for repression and human rights violations and abuses, not only in words but in action.
Mr. Buhari and his government should immediately lift the restriction on Mr Sowore, and allow him to re-join his family; drop bogus charges against activists and peaceful protesters, and immediately and unconditionally release all those still being detained solely for peacefully exercising their human rights.
Mr. Buhari should immediately send back CAMA 2020 to the National Assembly so that this draconian law can be repealed and brought into conformity with the country’s international human rights obligations. And he should instruct his Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice Mr Abubakar Malami, SAN to obey all court orders, including those obtained by anti-corruption watchdog Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), and human rights lawyer Femi Falana, SAN.
Mr. Buhari and his government ought to learn from John Locke’s dictum that “Where-ever law ends, tyranny begins”. Rather than continuing to repress human rights, the government should show that it can genuinely tackle systemic corruption and advance people’s well-being.
Civil society groups, human rights defenders and activists should continue to put pressure on the government to ensure the realization of human rights to which Nigeria has subscribed, and to end the general erosion of rights.
Now is the time for Nigeria’s international partners to speak out on the ongoing repression and crackdown on human rights in the country, and to push for the government to respect and protect the rights of its own people.
Doing this will boost the brave people trying to speak up for human rights in the prevailing tough environment in the country. It is essential for freedom, justice, dignity and accountability in Nigeria.
Kolawole Olaniyan, author of Corruption and Human Rights Law in Africa, is legal adviser at Amnesty International’s International Secretariat, London.