GUEST COLUMNIST: FEMI FALANA GUEST COLUMNIST
Human rights discourse in Africa is largely influenced by western notions of civil liberties. To hide the ideological bias of the discourse, human rights are said to be inalienable, immutable, universally valid and applicable. But history has shown that different groups have exploited human rights at different historical epochs to advance their class interests. In the case of Nigeria, the British government neither recognised nor respected the human rights of the people during the colonial era, which lasted for about a century in spite of the much proclaimed universality and inalienability of human rights. But on the eve of political independence, the departing colonial regime ensured that the right to private property and other human rights were entrenched in the independence constitution in a bid to protect the economic interests of foreign governments and companies.
Since then, the ruling class has entrenched human rights in subsequent constitutions. But because the entrenched human rights are civil and political in nature, the majority of the Nigerian people have been denied the opportunity to enjoy them due to poverty and ignorance. Realising that economic and social rights are an integral part of human rights, the socialist members of the United Nations influenced the adoption of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) in 1966. It is on record that the historic document contributed significantly to the campaign of oppressed peoples all over the world for the justiciability of socio-economic rights. In the case of Nigeria, the campaign for the establishment of a welfare state was given a fillip when the nation witnessed oil boom in the 1970s.
Thus, the Constitution Drafting Committee set up by the federal government in 1975 recommended the inclusion of Fundamental Objectives and Directive Principles of State Policy in the Constitution. Even though the recommendation was accepted by the federal government and incorporated them in chapter 2 of the 1979 Constitution, they were not intended to be actualised. They have also been embodied in Chapter 2 of the 1999 Constitution. The provisions of the fundamental objectives include socio-economic rights such as the right to security and welfare, right to political participation, right to education, right to health, right to environment, right to secure adequate means of livelihood including suitable and adequate shelter, suitable and adequate food, reasonable national minimum living wage, old age care and pensions, unemployment, sick benefits and welfare of the disabled and other vulnerable people. In order to guarantee national prosperity, the state is obligated to promote a planned and balanced economic development and harness the resources of the nation.
However, the ruling class ensured that while civil and political rights are justiciable the jurisdiction of the courts is completely ousted with respect to the enforcement of socio-economic rights. In other words, the fundamental objectives are regarded as mere ideals, which cannot be enforced in any court, as there are no funds to implement them. In their reaction to the exclusion clause, two members of the vommittee, Comrades Segun Osoba and (the late) Bala Usman, observed that having defanged the provisions by their non-justiciability, “the CDC draft has correspondingly robbed the masses of Nigerians of one major instrument for monitoring and controlling the conduct of those making public decisions on their behalf. We cannot grasp the value of a set of ‘fundamental objectives and directive principles of state policy’, which cannot be enforced in law even when it is clear to all and sundry that state policy decision-makers are constantly and consistently violating these objectives and principles”.
To appreciate the concern of Osoba and Usman, it is submitted that without adequate food, the rights to life and human dignity are meaningless to the vulnerable segment of the populace. Similarly, the right to housing has no relevance to people who are displaced and expelled from cities due to urban renewal projects carried out by governments. When the right to life of certain persons is terminated through extra-judicial killing by the police and other law enforcement agencies, those who depend on them for their education and welfare are rendered vulnerable. Without access to education, the right to freedom of expression is of no consequence to millions of illiterate people. In view of pervasive poverty in the society, it is no longer in dispute that as long as socio-economic rights are not made justiciable, majority of citizens cannot enjoy the civil and political rights guaranteed by the constitution.
Notwithstanding the conspiracy of the ruling class to make the fundamental objectives non-justiciable, the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights has been ratified and enacted into law by the National Assembly. Thus, the socio-economic rights enshrined in the African Charter are applicable and enforceable in the courts. In addition, certain provisions of Chapter II of the Constitution have been enacted into law by the ruling class based on the struggle of the working people and their allies for the establishment of a welfare state. Such enactments include the Price Control Act 1975, Peoples’ Bank Act 1992, Nigerian Education Bank Act 1993, National Minimum Wage 2011, Child’s Right Act 2003, Compulsory, Free, Universal Basic Education Act 2004, National Health Act, 2014, and Pension Reforms Act, 2014 etc. Even the workers in any privatised government enterprise are entitled to 10 per cent of the shares pursuant to the Privatisation and Commercialisation Act.
The Subversion of the Fundamental Objectives
In fulfillment of its obligations under the country’s welfare laws, the federal government established some agencies to provide welfare services to the people. Schools and hospitals were built and funded while other social services were provided and made accessible to the generality of the people. Employment opportunities were created for the youths even though the means of production and exchange remained in the hands of a few people and corporate bodies. However, the imposition of the World Bank-sponsored Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) by the Ibrahim Babangida junta in 1986 led to the official withdrawal from the funding of social services, which led to a phenomenal increase in the rate of poverty in the country. The complete or partial withdrawal of spending on public welfare negatively affected critical areas such as health, education with dire consequences on poor people. Unregulated trade liberalisation supported by the World Trade Organisation (WTO) destroyed local industries.
In addition to the diversion of public funds by a handful of public officers, the government has continued to take toxic loans from foreign financial institutions to fund the escalating costs of running an unproductive bureaucracy. Under an economy controlled by market forces, the majority of citizens have been denied access to security, welfare and happiness. In an arrogant manner, the few public officers and their cohorts who have cornered the commonwealth turn round to impose austerity measures on the people. The ongoing investigation into the mega looting of the treasury has shown that if the resources of the nation had been judiciously managed, an effective welfare programme could have been established and run in the interest of the people.
Although the mega looting of the national treasury is being investigated, the Nigerian people are being penalised for the mismanagement of the economy by the ruling class. Electricity tariff has been increased even though there is no improvement in electricity supply. Nigerians are being forced to pay more for education, health, fuel and other essential social services. The APC-led government has made it clear that it is unable to fulfill its electoral promises due to the damage done to the economy by the PDP and on account of the fall in the price of crude oil in the international market. Since the federal government is in a position to borrow N600 billion every month to pay salaries and maintain a parasitic bureaucracy, there can be no justification for not funding the welfare programme promised by the APC. It is therefore suggested that the stolen wealth being recovered should be channeled towards the funding of a welfare programme for the people.
Non-payment of Workers’ Salaries
By virtue of section 17 of the constitution, the government is under an obligation to provide a living national minimum wage and make conditions of work just and humane and ensure that the health, safety and welfare of all persons in employment are safeguarded and not endangered or abused. But in total disregard of its constitutional responsibility to Nigerian workers, the government has provided for a starvation wage of N18,000.00 per month. Even the starvation wage is not paid as and when due as stipulated by law. According to President Muhammadu Buhari, workers in 27 out of 36 states are owed arrears of salaries. Although the Nigerian people have been asked to be prepared to tighten their belts, no tier of government in the country has taken steps to reduce the expensive costs of running the public service. Over 70 per cent of the budget still goes for servicing a parasitic bureaucracy. No government has reviewed projects that constitute a drain on public treasury. Governors still travel so regularly to Abuja and other places in hired jets. There are 11 planes in the presidential fleet! Public officers move around in long convoys. The governments have hired hundreds of aides and consultants. Jobs which can be handled by civil servants are firmed out to contractors at skyrocketing prices. Majority of state governments have refused to adopt the TSA to eliminate the diversion of public funds. The federal government is only fighting even the much-touted corruption while it has remained business as usual in the states and local government councils.
Some ministers, senators and other public officers earn double salaries while no state government has reduced the scandalous pension package for ex-governors in terms of salaries for life, houses in the state capitals plus Abuja, medical, vehicle and other allowances etc. Some officers serve for four or five years and retire at less than 50 years of age only to be paid an exit package of not less than N500 million. Because there is not much lawmaking going on, legislators have opted for the business of executing constituency projects and conducting public hearing on all matters including the investigation of criminal offences and auditing/probing of public accounts when you have the police, the anti-graft agencies and the office of the auditor-general. With houses of assembly at the states, what is the justification for retaining the legislative councils in the 774 local government councils and the six area councils in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT)? Do we really need local governments whose statutory allocations are cornered by state governments on a monthly basis? Do we need two chambers of the National Assembly? How did the budget of the National Assembly increase from N45 billion per annum to 150 billion and now reduced to N115 billion? Do we need full time or part time legislators at the federal and state levels?
With the profligacy in government, there is no sign that we are going through tough times. Our public officers are paid the highest travelling allowances or estacode while our legislators are the highest paid in the world. After collecting wardrobe, housing and vehicle allowances of billions of naira, the federal legislators have placed orders for the purchase of exotic cars, which they approved for themselves. The payment of the illegal security votes by the federal, state and local governments has not ceased. Thousands of people going on pilgrimage to Mecca and Jerusalem yearly are sponsored by our governments, while legislators and other top public officers regularly embark on wasteful foreign tours at public expense. With the dwindling revenue from the sale of crude oil, no government in Nigeria has taken the diversification of the economy beyond rhetoric. If the dangerous trend is not checked, the federal, state and local governments are going to be declared bankrupt.
The Way Forward
At the Millennium Summit held from 6 – 8 September, 2000 where the United Nations General Assembly adopted the UN Millennium Declaration, the Heads of States and Governments pledged to meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which include the reduction of poverty and improving the lives of people through halving poverty and hunger, achieving universal primary education and creating a global partnership for development as well as targets for aid, trade and debt relief by 2015. Nigeria was one of the countries that promised to meet the MDG. But in spite of her enormous wealth, Nigeria has failed to meet any of the MDGs. While the government complained of lack of funds to meet the goals, top public officers have engaged in the mega looting of the treasury. In the course of diverting huge public funds by the influential criminals, the rate of infant and maternal mortality increased, while millions of children could not go to school. Millions of citizens also died in ill-equipped hospitals and on ill-maintained roads. Therefore, the labour movement should lead a campaign for the recovery of the looted wealth and the prosecution of all the indicted looters.
However, to reclaim the welfare state from its obstinate opponents in government, the Nigerian people have to be mobilised to ensure compliance with the various welfare laws and intensify the campaign for the full justiciability of the provisions of the socio-economic rights set out in Chapter 2 of the Constitution. Without mincing words, the socio-economic rights of our people cannot be actualised under a neo-colonial capitalist ideology. Apart from socialist states, no country in the world, not even the United States, has abolished poverty and guaranteed unrestrained access to education, health and employment for citizens. Hence, in the ongoing presidential race in the United States, no candidate has challenged Senator Bennie Sanders who has pointed out that the contradictions inherent in capitalism has produced millions of poverty stricken American citizens. Since the United States and other capitalist states are compelled to review the impoverishment of societies by capitalism, the ruling class in Nigeria should not be allowed to be more catholic than the Pope. In other words, the political parties set up by the bourgeoisie to access power should no longer be permitted to deceive our people to embrace poverty dictated by dangerous neo-liberal policies. Instead of dissipating energies to retrieve the discredited Labour Party from the PDP, the labour movement in Nigeria should establish a political party to struggle for the socialist construction of Nigeria.
In order to enforce the socio-economic rights of the Nigerian people recognised by law, the claim of the ruling class that there is no money to fund them should no longer be accepted. Over the years, the ruling class has conveniently ignored several judicial pronouncements in favour of social justice. That is not unexpected given the fact that the government is run by an army of neo-liberal ideologues who are committed to the defence of market fundamentalism. This means that the struggle for the economic empowerment of the masses transcends the legal arena. It is a battle for popular democracy as opposed to liberal democracy. It is a battle for the democratic control of the economy to ensure that the material resources of the nation are harnessed and distributed as best as possible to serve the common good.
Finally, to stop the reckless killing of people in Nigeria, we have to disband the police force, which has contempt for our people because of the neo-colonial content of their training. In its place a new police service, which will respect and defend the people should be established. To free our society from the tiny grip of looters, the Nigerian people should be mobilised to struggle for popular democracy. In the words of Nelson Mandela, “A simple vote, without food, shelter and health care is to use first generation rights as a smokescreen to obscure the deep underlying forces which dehumanise people. It is to create an appearance of equality and justice, while by implication socio-economic inequality is entrenched. We do not want freedom without bread, nor do we want bread without freedom. We must provide for all the fundamental rights and freedoms associated with a democratic society.”