Making Human Rights a Reality for Nigerians


Guest Columnist: By Olawale Fapohunda

December 10, Human Rights Day

“Do we have anything to commemorate?” That was the curt response I got from the editor of this page, when I reminded her that December 10, is Human Rights Day. Given current socio- economic realities, I am sure many Nigerians may agree with her.

On December 10, we celebrated UN Human Rights Day, to commemorate the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10, 1948. The landmark document states that human rights are not the preserve of any one nation, or race, or gender, but that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.

The Universal Declaration on Human Rights has gained wide and far-reaching acceptance globally, as a standard for the normative content of human rights. It protects all the rights. From civil and political to economic, social and cultural rights. In this way it reinforces the interconnectedness, indivisibility and universality of human rights.

Nigeria, Signatory to Key International Human Rights Instruments

Nigeria has either signed or ratified key international human rights instruments that define the normative standards, for the promotion and protection of human rights. These include the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination; the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women; the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and its Optional Protocol; the Convention on the Rights of the Child and its two Optional Protocols; and the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. The most recent are the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and its Optional Protocol. Add these to the Human Rights Provisions in Chapter 4 of our Constitution; the reasonable conclusion would be that the fundamental human rights of Nigerians are fully protected.

True, we have a long and proud history of signing up to international treaties and of course, making our presence felt at International Human Rights Conferences. The inconvenient reality is that, we are yet to put in place an appropriate framework for making human rights real for majority of our people, especially the poor and vulnerable. Yes, we have come a long way from those days of military dictatorships, including arbitrary arrests and detentions, denial of fair trial, denial of freedom of expression and press, the list goes on, but we are still a long distance away from achieving a framework in which the human rights of our citizens can be truly achieved.


In my view, poverty in Nigeria is the most critical barrier hindering enjoyment of rights today. I recognise the role of corruption in impoverishing us, but such is the manner in which the ‘corruption flag’ is waved at every governance issue in Nigeria today, that I am now grappling with finding the true meaning of the word. Poverty is not simply about having no money to spend, but the limited self- development opportunities available to an unacceptable large number of our people. Deprivation cuts across an array of interlinked issues, from which the poor suffer disproportionately. These include hunger, poor education, inadequate access to basic health care, social security and other forms of social and economic deprivation. These are all human rights issues.

Efforts to advance respect for human rights, and efforts to eliminate poverty are mutually reinforcing, each is instrumental to the achievement of the other. Human rights standards, offer a normative framework that should guide the design and implementation of policies to reduce poverty. Recognition of human rights gives deeper legitimacy to process for decision- making, policy design, and implementation of development strategies, increasing the likelihood that they will be effective, sustainable, inclusive, equitable, and of enduring value to those currently living in poverty.

As we commemorate 2016 International Human Rights Day, I am particularly concerned about rights violation in the justice system.

The rights of those who come into conflict with the law. More depressing for me is what appears to be the inability or unwillingness of the Federal and State Governments to make rapid progress on these issues. I continue to tell all those who will care to listen, that in Nigeria the line between freedom and incarceration are very thin. More so, if you are poor. I have written severally on the need for our Governments to adopt a pro-poor approach to interventions in the criminal justice sector. I have struggled to draw the attention of the Buhari administration to the fact that, many of those who shouted ‘change’ and ‘sai baba’ under the rain and the scorching sun in 2015, are being affected by the inability of the administration to focus on criminal justice. Expectedly, the administration has been quick to point to the prosecution of judges as work well done in this area. I doubt very much if victims of crime or offenders will agree.

Deplorable Conditions and Overcrowding in Prisons

My thoughts have been further affirmed by my visits to some of the worst prison facilities in Nigeria. Last month, I visited Port Harcourt and Ikoyi prisons as an expert advicer to a Prison Inspection visit that was convened by the National Human Rights Commission and the National Committee for the Prevention of Torture. Port Harcourt Prisons was flagged as a ’prison facility of grave human rights concern’.

Specifically, the National Human Rights Commission, the Legal Aid Council and several penal reform groups, have consistently identified the Port Harcourt prison facility, as one of the worst prison facilities in Nigeria. Conditions were described as ‘deplorable and unconstitutional’.

The capacity of Port Harcourt Prison is 804, at the time of our visit it held 3,865 prisoners. More than 3000 over congested. The sanitary and physical conditions were shocking. The population of awaiting trial prisoners was 3,381. A major problem is the transportation infrastructure of the prisons. There are limited functional vehicles. Access to court by inmates was therefore a challenge. Rehabilitation programmes, especially in the area of hands-on vocational training, was virtually nil to non-existent. In any case delivering such a programme, given the overcrowded state of the prisons, would be difficult.

As a former State Attorney-General, I am well aware of the politics of Federal and State Governments, as it relates to support for the Prisons. In this case it would seem that party politics and not the politics of fiscal federalism is the major obstacle. To be fair, Rivers State had peculiar historical problems with the administration of justice, including the prolonged closure of courts. While this background information is helpful in placing the situation in perspective, it goes without saying that solutions and not explanations will be desirable going forward. The point must be emphasised that the situation in Port Harcourt prison is not just a human rights or an access to justice issue, but one of national security. The Federal Government and Rivers State Government cannot afford a jailbreak in Port Harcourt Prison, of the sort that happened in a number of other States. This is more sogiven the current security concerns in that state.

The situation in Ikoyi Prisons is largely the same. The facility was built in 1961. It has a capacity of 800. At the time of our visit it held 2,361 prisoners. The number of awaiting trial prisoners were 2,044. The story is the same with most of the 227 prison facilities across Nigeria. It needs to be emphasised that, the way we treat prisoners is a reflection of how much consideration we show for respect for human dignity, the very cornerstone of human rights.

How Government Can Achieve Meaningful Intervention

I have often been asked that, given the enormity of the human rights challenges facing Nigeria, how can the Federal Government achieve meaningful intervention in a manner that responds to the concerns of Nigerians? I agree that there are many challenges. Dealing with historical issues arising from bad governance, including violations by non-state actors is sadly becoming the norm in our daily existence. The activities of Boko Haram, rampaging herdsmen, Niger-Delta Avengers, kidnappers, armed robbers all constitute grave threats to the enjoyment of our human rights. We need a human rights specific and strategic approach to human rights. It is crucial that government at all levels, engage their citizens and civil society, in a serious and continuous dialogue, about protecting and advancing human rights.

The National Human Rights Commission is facilitating a consultative process that has led to the development of a draft National Action Plan for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights in Nigeria. The four-year plan provides an important, comprehensive, structured approach to human rights planning that could facilitate the achievement of positive outcomes. Of course, its implementation will require resources and political will to put in place policies and programmes that deliver basic services in areas such as health, education, housing and social welfare, particularly to vulnerable groups. Achieving the implementation of the plan will go a long way in making human rights a reality for Nigerians.

Olawale Fapohunda, Managing Partner, Legal Resources Consortium