The long time lag between the last general election and when the National Human Rights Commission has decided to probe crimes allegedly committed during the poll makes the investigation particularly prone to suspicion. Vincent Obia writes
Anotorious infraction about which Nigerians have not heard much yet in the way of punishing offenders is the use of violence in speech and action during elections. But the National Human Rights Commission says it is prepared to reverse the trend. The commission says it has set up a legal framework to bring perpetrators of electoral violence in the last general election to justice.
“Those found to be involved in election violence and hate speech will be punished,” Executive Secretary of NHRC, Professor Bem Angwe, stated recently at the commission’s headquarters in Abuja while inaugurating the Special Investigation Panel on Hate Speeches and Election Violence. “Nobody shall be spared as there is no immunity in the realm of human rights violation. Politicians and their associates used the media as vehicle for the propagation of those hate speeches we witnessed during the elections, but they will never go scot-free.”
Angwe stressed, “We are going to be very impartial, this means that no person will be spared, no matter how highly placed that person is. Whoever was involved in this will be sought out and punished to serve as a deterrent to others.”
NHRC’s determination to use its constitutional powers to check the impudence of some politicians is praiseworthy; it is a step in the right direction. But as regards the last general election, the attempt to initiate a probe is belated, suspicious, and controversial.
It will be hard to convince Nigerians of NHRC’s impartiality in the decision to probe and prosecute at this time acts of violence and hate speech allegedly committed during the last general election. And it is easy to think why.
A lot of time has elapsed since the election and the commission had all the time to act when the offences were being committed. It failed to act. Now a new political party is in power at the federal level, and many of the allegations of violent speech and actions, which NHRC is going to be prosecuting, were levelled against elements and supporters of the old administration. It will, certainly, make a lot of sense to think that the ruling All Progressives Congress decided to bide its time until it got an opportunity to move against some perceived enemies in Peoples Democratic Party, which lost power at the last general election.
Though, the offences of violence and hate speech, which were, unfortunately, taken to frightening heights during the last election process, are not statute-barred, the exercise NHRC is embarking on is prone to suspicion and misinterpretation because of the timing. It will achieve very little.
The commission should rather focus on tackling current abuses and devising ways to prevent future occurrences. This can be achieved through a firm commitment to impartiality.
Institutions of state, like the NHRC, must learn to function as institutions indeed, and not just as an extension of the government of the day. They must rise above the obsequious situation, where no one in authority wants to be seen as going against the grain by having the guts to question the attitudes and mannerisms of those believed to be in the good books of the chief executive. It was such tendency that reduced NHRC to a toothless agency that merely talked the talk but failed to walk the walk when the various atrocities were being committed during the last general election.
By the commission’s own admission, 58 persons were killed in 22 states in the period before last year’s general election. Former chairman of NHRC’s Governing Council, Dr. Chidi Odinkalu, disclosed this on February 13 last year, in a report titled, “A pre-election report and advisory on violence in Nigeria’s 2015 general elections.” Hundreds more were maimed, while property of incalculable value were destroyed.
It is doubtful if the commission responded to the crimes in ways that matched its revelations. Yet, the commission, established in line with the resolution of the United Nations General Assembly, is expected to serve as an extra-judicial mechanism for the enhancement of human rights. It is supposed to help in creating an enabling environment for the promotion, protection and enforcement of human rights.
The Act establishing the commission gives it power to “deal with all matters relating to the promotion and protection of human rights guaranteed by the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, the United Nations Charter, and the Universal Declaration on Human Rights,” among others. The commission is also to “receive and investigate complaints concerning violations of human rights and make appropriate determination as may be deemed necessary in each circumstance.”
The NHRC is empowered to “refer any matter of human rights violation requiring prosecution to the Attorney General of the Federation or of a state, as the case may be.”
It is not clear how many of the high profile violations in the process of electioneering the NHRC has referred for prosecution, and how far it has followed up the cases to ensure effective prosecution.
Besides election matters, it is common knowledge that the country’s prisons and police stations are overflowing with inmates who face all manner of violations that require the intervention of the commission.
NHRC needs to get its act together. But it must refrain from actions that are bound to raise more questions than answers.