(Re-Issued)- The State and the Acceleration of Human Rights Abuses, By Jibrin Ibrahim

In its commemoration of this year’s Human Rights Day, the Punch newspapers published an editorial in which it announced a new policy to combat what it called growing autocracy and military-style repression. It would henceforth prefix President “Buhari’s name with his rank as a military dictator in the 80s, Major General, and refer to his administration as a regime, until they purge themselves of their insufferable contempt for the rule of law.”

They recalled that as military head of state, Buhari’s appointee who headed the then National Security Organisation, Lawal Rafindadi, unleashed a reign of terror on Nigerians, featuring arbitrary arrests and torture in cells described by inmates as chambers of horror. Under the infamous Decree 2, agents had pre-signed detention papers, court orders were ignored and ouster clauses were inserted in decrees, while the press was specifically targeted with the infamous Decree 4 under which Tunde Thompson and Nduka Irabor were jailed. Their conclusion is that Nigeria has degenerated back to those dark days of terror.

I completely agree with the assessment that we are witnessing a significant decline of respect for human rights and the rule of law. In spite of the very disturbing tendencies occurring, I am unwilling to equate our present political condition with the worst period of military dictatorship we have had in our history. We should be careful of what we pray for. I would prefer to call Muhammadu Buhari President rather than General/Dictator. We have a generation that has not seen the terrible violations of rights that occurred under military rule and we would be doing them a disservice by telling then it’s exactly the same thing happening today. It is not. Judges are issuing bold orders, elected people are exercising executive and legislative powers. The separation of powers has weakened but is not completely dead. I would therefore rather say that human rights violations are increasing but we have a democratic order that we can use to seek to protect the rights of our people.
I join many analysts in acknowledging that the human rights situation in Nigeria has certainly deteriorated considerably and all Nigerians of goodwill are concerned about the growing violation of rights of citizens by both State and non-State actors, escalating attacks on the powers of the judiciary and repression of the mass media, cultural and religious organisations that are lawfully exercising their inalienable rights to peaceful protest and dissent. It is unacceptable that as we celebrate twenty years of the restoration of democracy, we are witnessing numerous cases of refusal by government agencies to obey court orders and the arbitrary detention of citizens. The most recent case concerning Sahara Reporters publisher, Omoyele Sowore is really scandalous. Last Friday, December 6th, 2019, armed operatives of the State Security Service invaded Federal High Court No. 7 in Abuja to re-arrest him and his co-defendant, Olawale Bakare, both of whom were only released on bail in delayed compliance with the ruling of the court by the same DSS barely twenty-four hours earlier. The armed operatives brazenly desecrated the temple of justice. The leader of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN), Ibraheem El-Zakzaky and his wife have been detained for four years in flagrant violation of court orders granting them bail and ordering their release. Dozens of IMN supporters have been killed by the police while hundreds have been arrested for organizing protests calling for the court orders to be obeyed. The case of Col. Sambo Dasuki, the former National Security Adviser is similar. He too has been in detention for four years and court orders releasing him have been disrespected and disobeyed. Many critics and journalists such as Agba Jalingo, James Abiri, Dadiyata Idris and Stephen Kefas, have been arrested and arraigned. Some of them have been charged with treason or terrorism.

There are national campaigns working on defending high profile journalists and public figures that have been incarcerated. I am very concerned about daily harassment of ordinary Nigerians taking place. The notorious SARS unit of the police has been regular in picking up Nigerians, killing and torturing them and engaging in all forms of extortion. All attempt to close the unit or to civilize them have failed completely. It is not surprising the ordinary Nigerian citizen is getting very frightened of the terrible things Nigeria’s security agents, who are ostensibly recruited to protect them could do to them.

Nigeria is undergoing a crisis of constitutionalism as our Grand Norm is violated regularly by law enforcement agencies. The law is clear that suspects cannot be held beyond 48 hours except on the basis of a court order but it is not respected. Investigation is often conducted using techniques of torture. The result is that the rule of law has lost its meaning as governments do what they want. We cannot deepen our democracy if State authorities systematically disrespect the pillars on which their own authority and legitimacy is supposed to stand. Law enforcement agencies tend to define their role as the protection and preservation of the individuals that run the government so when they think some citizens are too critical of such persons, their reflex is to lock them up, irrespective of the rights guaranteed by the Constitution.
My own concern is that to show their loyalty to the President, the security agencies are resorting increasingly to language and action that restricts civic space and violate the rights of Nigerians. By so doing, they are undermining the democratic order. Nigerians have the constitutional right to peaceful protest. There are existing provisions of law and judicial authorities recognising the fundamental rights of the Nigerian people to non-violently convene and participate in rallies, demonstrations and protest marches. The Nigerian State has a responsibility to protect these rights and must stop violating them as has become their practice.

As Femi Falana argued a couple of weeks ago, the Buhari administration has decided to extend the ambit of the Terrorism Prevention (Amendment) Act to cover individuals and organisations that are critical of official policies or perceived marginalisation within the federation. He drew attention to how the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) was proscribed as a terrorist body in 2017 for agitating for the excision of the Republic of Biafra from Nigeria while the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN) was proscribed recently for organising rallies to compel the federal government to comply with a court order by releasing the Shia leader, Sheikh Ibraheem El Zakzaky and his wife from custody.

The crimes of treason, treasonable felony and terrorism are serious offences and it is simply unacceptable to place simple protesters as people who have committed such crimes. In this case, protests against the worsening security situation in the country, the demand for payment of N30,000 minimum wage to workers and job creation for the youth cannot be translated into serious crimes even if the word revolution has been used. It would be recalled that Femi Falana himself and four others were charged with treasonable felony in May 1992 by the Ibrahim Babangida junta for organizing protests demanding an end to military rule in Nigeria. They argued that it was ironical that General Babangida and his fellow coup plotters who should be standing trial for treason had turned around to charge them with treasonable felony for merely organising street protests and rallies to end a corrupt military dictatorship in our country. In this 20th year of return to democracy, we cannot go back to such vile tactics.